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The opera opens with Neal Davies' Zebul announcing the appointment of his half-brother Jephtha, Mark Padmore, as the new head of the armed forces. Davies is suitably earnest as Zebul and has a neat way with Handel's music, but in his first aria he totally failed to dominate the stage, the movement of chorus and principals constantly took the eye and ear away from him. Perhaps this was Mitchell's point, that Zebul is a character who is well meaning but cannot dominate.
This completely changes with Mark Padmore's entry: he dominates the stage whenever he is present. Padmore's Jephtha is a wonderfully charismatic leader and Padmore's way with Handel's music is glorious. But there were just one or two moments when I did wonder whether Padmore's voice has quite the heft to sing this part in the Coliseum; it must have been very different hearing him in the far smaller New Theatre in Cardiff when WNO did this production. Also, he and Mitchell have created a character who is not quite likeable; Jephtha is constantly adding spoken (but not heard by us) asides to his staff, giving instructions and controlling things, both during his arias and other people's. This is a man who commands and who takes decisions to succeed at command. A war leader who, however approachable he may appear, has the iron will to sacrifice his only daughter to achieve victory. And don't forget that, with victory comes political power; Jephtha's quid pro quo for agreeing to come back and lead the Israelites is that if he is victorious in war he will lead the nation in peace.
Mitchell's staging of Jephtha's vow was interesting; the Angel (Sarah-Jane Davies, looking very striking in red hair, trouser suit, high heels and wings) almost dictates the vow to him, whispering it into his ear. The Angel is then present on stage as an unseen observer of the subsequent action.
As Jephtha's wife, Storgè, Susan Bickley made a wonderfully rounded person out of a character whose role is pretty schematic; before her daughter's execution she has nightmares and is worried, and after, she is incandescent with grief. It is a tribute to Bickley's skill that we did not feel the role as schematic but felt deeply for Storgè's tribulation. Bickley's slightly edgy tone, combined with a warm voice, works well in this music; she sings with a good line and a nice feel for Handel's style. Perhaps we can hope that ENO will follow this up with a staging of Handel's Hercules with Bickley as Dejanira.
Sarah Tynan was outstanding as Iphis, Jephtha and Storgè's daughter. Tynan is a member of ENO's young singers' scheme and is obviously a talent to watch. Iphis is also a slightly schematic character. In the first half she is young, carefree and in love with Hamor (Robin Blaze); this is so that when the blow falls, it does so with added force as we see what it is that she will lose. Both she and Blaze were a delight in the love scenes, even if stage business with their being perpetually chaperoned began to annoy.
Copyright © 13 June 2005
Robert Hugill, London UK